Retooling Your Ad Agency for the New Marketing Universe

Hard Times Actually Level the Playing Field

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
The landlord for my Cambridge office passed away several years ago when he was well into his 90's. Right up to the end, Grant came into the building a couple of times a week to check on his investment. Every spring he made a personal visit to my office to ask for a donation to the Boston Food Bank. No matter how much I gave, he always put the squeeze on me for another $500, another $1,000. Once I made a comment about how I could give a little more if he'd cut the rent. He growled at me and said, "That's business. This is charity."

Although he was a total skinflint, I know he had made several fortunes in his lifetime. One story about him has always inspired my business thinking. During the 1930s, Grant owned a tool-and-dye business that ground to a halt because nobody was making tools. So, he did what any sensible person would do who was sitting on a factory full of idle machinery. He started making tiny cardboard puzzles that he sold for a nickel. As the story goes, that made him another fortune.

You can probably see where I'm going. Rumor has it that business is slowing down and companies are cutting back. That doesn't mean that people aren't spending money and that they don't see value in advertising and marketing. They just may not want to spend as much, and they may not want to buy the services they bought a year ago. The puzzle has become: How can we give them great work for less money? I think there is plenty that we can offer, although I'm not promising any fortunes.

Above all else, banish ideas that depend exclusively on significant media buys. Advertising may be part of the mix, but consider all the valuable activities that don't come with a big sticker price. One of the ironies is that in these challenging times, companies with the smallest budgets can create as powerful a presence as those companies spending millions more dollars.

Here are some of the strategies for our clients that I'm thinking about.

In a tight market, differentiation becomes more critical for companies. They need to provide even more persuasive reasons for purchasing their products. This is a great time to work with clients on a positioning exercise that will sharpen key messages. If you're interested, PJA published an e-book called Between Blue Sky and Bullet Points that may offer some useful ideas.

A recent summary of a Media Post conference in San Francisco drew two conclusions. One, social media is still a hot topic with agencies. Two, among clients, social media is lukewarm. Don't forget that it took some companies years to see the value in creating a website, and that online advertising was in the doghouse for several years after the dotcom crash. While the marketing universe is still shifting, we should be the guides that show our clients how to participate in customer-generated channels, such as user communities.

On a related note, most clients possess a wealth of valuable content that sits in the corporate attic. Help them develop a strategy for deploying all that content on social media and direct sales channels. White papers, product demos, speeches, and industry presentations can be repurposed on blogs, podcasts and videoconferences. The agency can provide a huge service by programming the full spectrum of content that supports a client's brand.

A huge growth area for us has be the development of inexpensive video programming for the web. Clients who could never afford broadcast now have the power to produce spots and deliver them directly to their ideal audience.

The exciting point to remember is that today every good creative organization has the tools and the talent to be a publisher, a video producer, a marketing consultancy, and maybe even an advertising agency. Those sound like pretty good odds for success.

Follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @PhilJohnson

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